Why Animal Rights Advocates Should Support Efforts to Ban the Cruelest Confinement and Most Abusive Slaughter of Farmed Animals

by Bruce Friedrich

Last week, the American Veal Association announced a recommendation to phase-out, over the next 10 years, the practice of chaining and crating calves. While most readers will agree that for the 800,000 calves killed for veal each year, the elimination of veal crates is a good thing, there are some who oppose efforts to stop the most horrible abuses of farmed animals and who may see this as a veal industry ploy to sell more dead baby calves.

Thus far, this debate has focused largely on whether welfare improvements will lead us to animal liberation. Although I believe (and have argued in other forums) that reforms are a key stepping stone toward liberation (by placing animals onto our moral agenda, by forcing meat-eaters to face the fact that they are eating individuals with interests, not "meat," etc.), for this blog I�d like to focus on a larger issue than efficacy�the speciesist nature of arguing against working to ban the worst abuses of farmed animals.

Applying the Golden Rule Across the Species Barrier:
I believe that animal activism should involve applying the golden rule across the species barrier, asking ourselves this question: "If I were a calf in a crate or a hen being starved for two weeks or crammed into a battery cage, how would I want a human animal rights activist to behave?"

Asking this question leads me to believe that the 800,000 calves and 250 million hens who are crated for veal and caged for eggs each year deserve to have advocates demanding that they be released, and I am constantly shocked at the implication of some activists that we should leave the animals in crates and cages so that we can use that to shame meat-eaters into not eating veal or eggs (and also that the crates and cages are not such a big deal�that removing animals from crates and cages is a small gain).

The most recent of which I�m aware, by Jenny Stein and James LaVeck, reads like James� multiple other essays on the topic and makes the exact same points, except that now he and Jenny have coined a term for those of us who support banning cruel practices�they call us "neocarns," comparing us to the political neocons who claim to care about things like global poverty, governmental destabilization, and war, but whose policies actually make situations worse.

Developing their neocarn theory, Jenny and James argue that by improving animals� welfare, the killers will be able to kill more animals and better market their products. They argue that we are playing into the hands of industry by pushing them to improve welfare, because improved welfare sells.

I am convinced that the opposite is true, but regardless, as an argument this implicitly (but definitely) suggests that we should allow some animals to suffer hideously now so that we can stop some other future hypothetical animals (hypothetical because I think that with welfare reforms comes a decrease, not an increase, in the number of animals eaten) from suffering later, and this is the consistent practical application of everyone on the anti-welfare side of this discussion.

Applying the Anti-Welfare Argument to Human Situations:
Sadly, breaking out of our speciesism is no easy trick, so it is wise for animal rights activists to ask ourselves when determining how we feel about something, "what if these were human beings?" So in the current discussion, it�s useful for us to ponder the question: "If it were hundreds of millions of human beings in tiny cages and crates, hundreds of millions of human beings starved for weeks to shock their bodies into another laying cycle, and about 10 billion human beings having their throats slit each year while they were still conscious, how would we behave?"

Jenny, James, and other anti-welfare advocates suggest that we would not settle for getting these humans out of their cages and crates, not settle for an end to starving them and slitting their throats while they are conscious�that we would demand nothing less than liberation.

Of course liberation is what we all desperately want and thus the appeal of this argument is obvious. But if we are going to be the most effective advocates for animals we can be, then we have to be honest about the world we live in and recognize that for the billions of animals currently in these conditions, liberation is not an option. We have to challenge ourselves to ask, "Considering that 10 billion chickens and hundreds of millions of hens will have their throats slit open while they are still conscious and will be crammed into tiny cages for their entire lives, and that these animals will not be released no matter what we do, how do we act on their behalf?"

An anti-welfare advocate recently asked if those of us who support banning the worst abuses of farmed animals would have fought not for abolition but for better treatment of slaves. The person who asks this question is asking rhetorically, assuming the response to be "Of course not, we would demand liberation." But however much we would all want to answer thus, of course we would all (I hope) support better conditions for slaves, even as we worked for abolition of slavery. Clearly it would be in someone�s best interest to have less abuse.

Similarly, I have never heard anyone suggest that Amnesty International�by fighting for better conditions for political prisoners while fighting for their freedom� is somehow compromising its larger goal of freeing all political prisoners. I believe this is because we can put ourselves in the prisoners� places: We would want liberation, but until then, we�d want some basic rights (access to mail, to phones, the chance to socialize, etc.).

As another example, death penalty opponents simultaneously advocate for the abolition of the death penalty while also working to ban the most torturous forms of execution (e.g., hanging and electrocution). Most readers are probably opposed to the death penalty, and yet we recognize that at the very least, we should support efforts to eliminate especially horrible forms of killing prisoners, as well as for basic human rights for the prisoners while they are alive.

Those animal advocates who don�t take the same stance with regard to animal welfare reforms (and demean them as inconsequential) seem to lack the ability to fully empathize with animals in the same way we empathize with humans�again, speciesism in its purest form.

Are the Reforms Significant?
Remarkably, anti-welfare advocates consistently argue that getting rid of battery cages, gestation crates, and veal crates is insignificant�that the reforms are minimal and, to quote Jenny and James, "illusory"?! [my emphasis]. They argue that convincing McDonald�s and then the entire egg industry to stop starving hens for 2 weeks was an inconsequential victory. They argue that using controlled atmosphere killing (CAK) to kill chickens is inconsequential and that discussing the means of killing is immoral, even though right now, nearly 10 billion birds have their throats slit open while they are still conscious and CAK would cause their deaths to be virtually painless.

No animal in a crate or cage, chicken in a slaughterhouse, or hen starved for two weeks would agree that group housing, painless deaths, and an end to starving animals are "illusory short-term" gains for animals.

Conclusion: Should "Vision" Trump Reality?
I think the core problem, as well represented by Jenny and James� most recent essay, is that for these anti-welfare advocates, purity of "vision" is more important than stopping suffering, and it is more important in a way that could never hold up to scrutiny if the argument were made about suffering humans.

Jenny and James� essay, which I hope you will read in full, concludes with this: "If we faithfully serve our vision, if we fiercely protect and support it, if we defend it from co-option and corruption�then, and only then, will we have a real chance of bringing our vision to life." There is no way this argument would be made by abolitionists in the days of slavery or by prisoners� rights advocates today.

Ironically considering their most recent essay, Jenny and James make the same basic error that the neocons do�they ignore real suffering in the pursuit of a vision. According to their anti-welfare view, we should ignore the horrible suffering of billions of animals�starving them, mutilating them, caging and crating them in total denial of their every desire�in order to preserve our vision. This sounds remarkably similar to the vision of the neocons in Iraq and with their free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs; "reality and suffering be damned, we have a vision to protect."

Those of us who care about animals should think deeply about how we would argue and behave if these were human beings in tiny cages, pregnant in stalls for years at a time, starved for weeks on end, having their throats slit open while still totally conscious. After performing this exercise, real clarity of vision demands support for both welfare reforms and abolition efforts.

Postscripts 1 and 2:
Aside number 1: Only those who oppose getting rid of the worst abuses are telling other advocates what to do; my essay does not suggest that Jenny and James should work on welfare reforms, but only that they should not attack those who work to improve conditions. You won�t find anyone on the pro-welfare side who suggests that those on the anti-welfare side should stop promoting abolition or even work at all on welfare reforms. Those of us supporting all efforts for other animals realize there is too much work to do to disparage others� work.

Aside number 2: My article about the fact that there is no such thing as "humane" meat and that anyone who cares about animals should be a vegetarian can be read here.

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